Susan Bro embodies the dilemma that may very well define Joe Biden’s presidency: can there be peace without justice?
Bro is the mother of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old woman who was killed in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, by far-right activist James Alex Fields. Fields deliberately ran his car over a group of peaceful protesters who were marching in opposition to a group of neo-Nazis, Klansmen and white supremacists who had gathered from around the country for what they called Unite the Right Rally. In commenting on these tragic events, the US president at the time, Donald Trump, famously stressed that there were very fine people on both sides of the protest. Joe Biden has said that what happened in Charlottesville convinced him to run for president.
Biden has rightly divined that progress requires that the divisions that now fragment the country and block important decision-making be curtailed
Susan Bro worries that, in the pursuit of unity, Joe Biden may sacrifice justice. She told The New York Times, healing requires holding perpetrators accountable. Unity follows justice.
Biden offers another perspective: “We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace – only bitterness and fury.”
The list of emergencies that the new president must deal with is overwhelming. The pandemic, its catastrophic economic consequences, climate change, a deeply unequal and polarized society and dozens of international crises are just some of the urgent problems facing the Biden administration. If responding effectively to just one of these challenges is immensely difficult, tackling them all at the same time is daunting. But there is no alternative: the threats are real, they have been getting worse and they demand immediate attention. Biden has rightly divined that progress in fighting any of these threats requires that the divisions that now fragment the country and block important decision-making be curtailed. Unity was the theme of President Biden’s inaugural address and is the message he reiterates every time he addresses the nation.
Biden is an experienced politician and knows how difficult it will be to unite partisan Democrats and Republicans. Moreover, leading Americans to cut the vitriol and coexist in more harmony with their compatriots who support leaders and causes that they find unpalatable is as urgent as it is difficult.
Biden also knows that while 82 million Americans voted for him (or against Trump) another 74 million did so for Trump (or against the current president) and that more than a third of Americans believe that he is an illegitimate president. Clearly, the national unity that Biden advocates is necessary. But, is there a contradiction in aiming to bring polarized Americans together while at the same time arresting and jailing those who invaded the Capitol or the Republican politicians, lawyers and bureaucrats who actively engaged in staging a coup that aimed at keeping Trump in power?
The political tension between peace and justice is already causing problems in Washington.
Leading Americans to cut the vitriol and coexist in more harmony with their compatriots who support leaders and causes that they find unpalatable is as urgent as it is difficult
Just one day after the start of the Biden administration, and in reaction to the decision to proceed with the impeachment of Donald Trump, Republican Senator Ted Cruz urged Democratic Party leaders to put aside what he described as their “partisan hatred” of Donald Trump, and added: “It seems that Senate Democrats [...] want to start the new Congress [...] with a vindictive and punitive impeachment trial.”
That same day, a journalist asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic head of the House of Representatives, if prosecuting Donald Trump did not contradict the calls to unify the country. “The fact is that the president of the United States committed an act of incitement, of insurrection,” replied Pelosi, adding, “I don’t think it’s very unifying to simply say ‘let’s just forget it and move on.’ That’s not how you unify. It is our responsibility to protect and defend the constitution and that is what we are going to do.” Referring to Trump, the Democratic leader affirmed that: “You don’t say to a president, ‘Do whatever you want in the last months of your administration and you’re going to get a get-out-of-jail card free,’ because people think we should make nice-nice and forget that people died here on January 6, that the attempt to undermine our election or to undermine our democracy, to dishonor our Constitution. No, I don’t see that at all. I think that would be harmful to unity.”
The peace versus justice debate is not new in the United States or the rest of the world. In fact, it is frequently found in many of the societies that are beginning to recover from war, prolonged periods of violence and serious human rights violations. “Truth and Reconciliation commissions” played an important role in South Africa, Sri Lanka and Colombia.
This, of course, is not the case in the United States. Nonetheless, recent events show that it is not prudent to take for granted that America’s institutions (Congress, the media, the military and especially its judicial system) have the strength, resources and tools needed to cope with a political environment where those who demand redress and justice constantly clash with those who advocate magnanimously looking ahead for the sake of social peace.
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